As featured in Psychology Today.
In the midst of the COVID-19 health crisis, I find myself looking back to the journey I’ve taken as a researcher and psychologist. I became a psychologist and a researcher out of hope—hope that I could help improve the tools we all have to overcome problems like anxiety and depression.
But a decade into my career, I discovered that while we have excellent treatments and research, we weren’t always giving people treatments that work and fit into their lives. Instead, we create treatments that are too expensive, too time-consuming, too hard to access, and perhaps most importantly, deeply stigmatizing.
Digital and mobile technology hold incredible promise in addressing these barriers and disparities—more important than ever during these challenging times in which digital health may be our only means of receiving health care.
In 2010, I started doing research in the field of digital therapeutics, translating new, neuroscience-based interventions from the lab into apps for treating behavioral and mental health problems. The term digital therapeutics, however, didn’t really exist back in 2010, in part because from a scientific point of view, it was very much the Wild West—complete with non-scientific snake oil and a headlong gold rush to capitalize on the growing digital health market. Today, the field of health technology has grown in leaps and bounds but continues to need science to back it up as we assess both the potential benefits and costs of what these technologies provide.
Potential costs are largely due to the elephant in the room—digital technologies, in general, have not been designed for our health and well-being. They have been designed for corporate profit. As a result, digital experiences designed for “engagement” are really just designed to keep us looking at our screens to click and buy more. We’re all starting to feel the exhausting burden of this.
How can a true digital therapeutic live in this potentially toxic digital ecosystem? In my work developing a stress and anxiety-reduction app, I’ve learned four important take-aways:
- Science: From the beginning, and before we provide any digital therapeutics to the public, clinical validation is a must. We must give our community of users a scientifically honed tool, not snake oil.
- Effortless: If our goal is to bring barriers to an absolute minimum, so that taking the first step towards mental wellness and stress reduction is easy and seamless, then we should prioritize developing tools that are non-invasive, used on-the-go, and do not require a therapist—although these can complement more traditional therapies.
- Micro-intervention: We should also prioritize developing tools that don’t keep us on screens for hours—we already struggle with that! My goal from the earliest days of developing a new app was to create a digital therapeutic that has an effect if used just a few minutes a day, a few days a week; and one that can be used for longer periods of time when you need it, or to build stress and anxiety resilience over time with longer use.
- Delight: Pursuing mental wellness should be delightful, not stigmatizing, not demoralizing, and not cold and clinical. Like fitness and physical health, we should provide people with therapeutic experiences that are fulfilling and beautiful and that we can reach for any time because they truly fit into our lives.